Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | A public-private partnership in Philadelphia is helping residents overcome the barriers to accessing the public benefits and tax credits they’re entitled to.
Philadelphia bears a particularly unwanted moniker among American cities: the poorest large city in the country. In recent years, Philadelphia lawmakers have recognized and sought to remedy this status, in part by addressing the systemic barriers that prevent people from accessing crucial public benefits and tax credits. A notable effort to make inroads in this area over the past two years has been The Promise, a public-private partnership between the city of Philadelphia and United Way.
My team at the Urban Institute recently evaluated The Promise’s Family Stability Challenge initiative, which promotes collaboration between community-based organizations that help Philadelphians by providing various personalized assistance to those accessing benefits and tax credits. Our findings show that public benefit navigators funded through Family Stability Challenge are crucial for the many Philadelphians who are entitled to public benefits and tax credits but face insurmountable barriers in accessing them.
Accessing public benefits and tax credits can be a daunting and confusing task. We heard repeatedly from Philadelphians and benefit navigators about eligible individuals who don’t receive necessary financial support because of barriers like lack of awareness, complex application processes and lack of foreign language translation. The vast majority of these residents missing out on benefits are working, elderly or disabled and cannot get by on work income alone. In other words, millions of dollars are left on the table annually that families acutely need.
Systemic inequalities also persist in Philadelphia when it comes to benefits access. Our analysis of the gaps between people whose income suggests they are potentially eligible and those who report receiving benefits indicates that some populations are disproportionately affected by access barriers. For Philadelphians with incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, we found that people of Chinese descent, people born outside the U.S., younger adults (ages 18-34) and seniors report less use of public benefits than we’d expect based on how many are likely eligible.
The supports these groups are missing out on, such as food assistance, housing subsidies, child care and tax credits, can have a profound effect on the living conditions and economic stability of low-income households. Expanded access to public benefits and tax credits can improve health outcomes, increase educational attainment and enhance employment prospects. But without necessary access to these benefits, those effects remain unrealized. Public benefit navigators can bridge this gap.
These trained professionals serve as guides, helping individuals and families navigate the maze of benefits and tax credits available to them. Their roles are diverse and multifaceted, encompassing outreach and education, application assistance, client advocacy and ongoing support to ensure that eligible people receive the help they need.
Further, public benefit navigators help address systemic inequalities in benefits access. They can target outreach efforts toward communities that often face the greatest barriers. And the community-based navigators funded through Family Stability Challenge are well-positioned to remove barriers specific populations across the city face. For instance, Family Stability Challenge supports partnerships between small organizations with deep community ties that employ navigators to provide culturally competent translation and specialized tax preparation services for immigrant communities that disproportionately miss out on key supports. These organizations have also partnered on outreach tailored to people underserved in their communities, including seniors. By providing personalized outreach and application assistance, benefit navigators can better address each person’s unique set of circumstances and access barriers.
Funding public benefit navigators is not only a matter of compassion but an investment in the future of entire communities. When families have stable housing, adequate nutrition and access to health care and child care, they are better equipped to weather financial storms and pursue education and job opportunities. And children whose families receive these benefits earn more in adulthood than peers in families who did not receive this support.
The evidence shows the important benefits of empowering benefit navigators to serve Philadelphians. By continuing to invest in the well-being of city residents through efforts like Family Stability Challenge, city leaders can commit to a future where every individual has a fair chance to thrive.
Amelia Coffey is a senior research associate at the Urban Institute where she studies the design and implementation of public benefits intended to support stability and mobility for youth and families.